The US Postal Service is in the midst of a manufactured crisis. It is supposedly broke and headed toward a sort of fiscal cliff of its own. If it goes over, the likely result is privatization of its profitable enterprises and elimination of the commitment to universal service that has been the service's promise since the founding of the republic.
But that does not have to happen.
Congress undermined the financial stability of the postal service during a lame-duck session six years ago.
It can repair the damage done during this session.
The task is not difficult.
The lift is not heavy.
It is merely a matter of will.
Friday’s New York Times noted that “the Postal Service on Thursday reported a record $15.9 billion net loss for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, bringing the financially troubled agency another step closer to insolvency.”
That’s the CliffsNotes version of the story. And if people read no further, they’ll think that the USPS is a mess. But it’s not. It’s merely in a financial mess created by Congress.
Two-thirds of the $15.9 billion “loss” involved what the Times referred to as “accounting expenses of $11.1 billion related to two payments that the agency was supposed to make into its future retiree health benefits fund.”
Those accounting expenses were imposed not by necessity but by Congress. And the imposition can be lifted, along with restrictions on the ability of the service to compete.
In 2006, a Republican Congress—acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration—enacted a law that required the postal service to “pre-fund” retiree health benefits seventy-five years into the future. No major private-sector corporation or public-sector agency could do that. It’s an untenable demand.
“[The] Postal Service in the short term should be released from an onerous and unprecedented burden to pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits over a ten-year period,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “With $44 billion now in the fund, the Postal Service inspector general has said that program is already stronger than any other equivalent government or private-sector fund in the country. There already is more than enough in the account to meet all obligations to retirees.”
“The Postal Service should also be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to its pension plans,” Sanders explained earlier this year, as the current “crisis” began to take shape. “With these changes alone, the Postal Service would be back in the black and posting profits.”
Sanders and other concerned legislators have gotten the Senate to take some steps toward addressing what is, in reality, a Congressional crisis—not a postal crisis. But the disengaged and dysfunctional Republican leadership in the House has failed to act in an even minimally responsible manner.
The Post Office will need to make changes. It will need to evolve as the ways in which Americans communicate change. But it can and should remain the vital source of community and connection that it has been since the nation’s founding. For that to happen, however, the USPS must be allowed by maintain staffing and infrastructure, to expand services, to operate in a fiscally responsible and fiscally sane manner—not required to default.